This qualitative interview study (n=31) examined whether ayahuasca group rituals can promote reconciliation between Arab Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, and identified relational processes that can potentially contribute to peacebuilding. Group members felt connected either through a sense of shared humanity based on universal similarities, through the recognition of their intercultural differences, or through conflict-related revelations associated with collective pain and trauma.
“Introduction: Psychedelics are used in many group contexts. However, most phenomenological research on psychedelics is focused on personal experiences. This paper presents a phenomenological investigation centered on intersubjective and intercultural relational processes, exploring how an intercultural context affects both the group and individual process.
Methods: Through 31 in-depth interviews, ceremonies in which Palestinians and Israelis drink ayahuasca together have been investigated. The overarching question guiding this inquiry was how psychedelics might contribute to processes of peacebuilding, and in particular how an intercultural context, embedded in a protracted conflict, would affect the group’s psychedelic process in a relational sense. Analysis of the interviews was based on grounded theory.
Results: Three relational themes about multilocal participatory events which occurred during ayahuasca rituals have emerged from the interviews: 1) Unity-Based Connection – collective events in which a feeling of unity and ‘oneness’ is experienced, whereby participants related to each other based upon a sense of shared humanity, and other social identities seemed to dissolve (such as national and religious identities). 2) Recognition and Difference-Based Connection – events where a strong connection was made to the other culture. These events occurred through the expression of the other culture or religion through music or prayers, which resulted in feelings of awe and reverence 3) Conflict-related revelations – events where participants revisited personal or historical traumatic elements related to the conflict, usually through visions. These events were triggered by the presence of ‘the Other,’ and there was a political undertone in those personal visions.
Discussion: This inquiry has revealed that psychedelic ceremonies have the potential to contribute to peacebuilding. This can happen not just by ‘dissolution of identities,’ but also by providing a space in which shared spiritual experiences can emerge from intercultural and interfaith exchanges. Furthermore, in many cases, personal revelations were related to the larger political reality and the history of the conflict. Such processes can elucidate the relationship between personal psychological mental states and the larger sociopolitical context.”
A write-up of this study was also done for Psychedelic Spotlight.
A case series of revelatory moments experienced during this study was done by Roseman & Karkabi (2021).
It’s not uncommon for someone to feel connected to the whole world whilst using psychedelics. Unitive experiences or unitive consciousness are part of the concepts that mysticism scales use when investigating the intensity of a psychedelic experience. So, can psychedelics help us connect with those that we oppose?
This qualitative interview study with 31 participants examined whether ayahuasca group rituals can promote reconciliation between Arab Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, and identified relational processes that can potentially contribute to peacebuilding.
The themes that were identified
- Group members felt connected either through a sense of shared humanity based on universal similarities
- Through the recognition of their intercultural differences
- Or through conflict-related revelations associated with collective pain and trauma
The first theme was most pronounced and enabled participants to connect beyond their individual identities. The communitas experienced by the participants extended beyond the acute psychedelic experience and led to a group or tribe identity that could supersede their different identities.
The current study was only done at a small scale and was only observational (i.e. the goal wasn’t to reconcile differences). The groups also were mostly hosted and attended by Jewish Israelis with Arab Palestinians being the minority participants. Further work could explore how, and even if, psychedelics can help (groups of) people find common ground.
Ruqaiya had a painful historical revelation during an ayahuasca ritual on Yom Kippur. She recognized the longstanding injustice of the Israeli occupation of her people.
Ruqaiya sang al-Fatiha (the opening verses of the Quran) at an ayahuasca ritual to deliver an emancipatory message as a Muslim to the Jewish Israeli participants. Her message was rejected, but her loyalty to the ritual changed her life.
Ruqaiya’s vision was unusual in the context of organized Israeli ayahuasca rituals in which Palestinians participated, because the gatherings were kept strictly “apolitical”. However, politics were unavoidable, even in such “protected” settings.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic Amazonian brew containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a classic tryptamine psychedelic, and a mix of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which prevent the breakdown of DMT when consumed orally. It is known to produce a myriad of intense experiences, and the cultural influence on the visionary experience.
The mystical union is an experience in which one feels interconnectedness with others and the universe. It can strengthen relations between participants, but it can also conceal and even deny the violence that one group inflicts on another.
Psychedelics have a revolutionary potential that can promote resistance to hegemony and disruption of the status quo. This potential is demonstrated by the fact that psychedelics are used by countercultures and colonized people to stimulate radical revelatory events.
In this sense, the revelatory experience and the mystical union are in tension, as they serve opposing political processes. The prophetic revelation comes with a concrete ethical-political message.
Participants act upon revelatory experiences during and after ayahuasca rituals, which are defined as events by Alan Badiou. These events aim to force radical change by including what was previously excluded from the structure.
This paper proposes that the structure of ayahuasca rituals mirrors the sociopolitical structures of the Israeli state and society, which exclude Palestinians, their history, and their collective rights. Furthermore, it maintains that ayahuasca rituals can occasionally cause a sense of fidelity that challenges the status quo.
We begin with an elaboration on Badiou’s “event” and discuss the distinction between psychedelic experiences of mystical union and revelation. We then discuss the structure of ayahuasca rituals in Israel and discuss three cases in which participants had agonizing political visions.
BADIOU’S EVENT: REVELATION, FIDELITY, AND UNIVERSALITY
Badiou uses set theory to describe the process of revolutionary events, which must unfold through an individual or a collective.
Badiou believes that reality is infinite, multiple, and inconsistent, and that any situation is made of different elements grouped together, giving it structure.
The status quo, which consists of ideology, language, discourse, and social norms, prevents the revelation of the excluded elements, but a truth from the void can occasionally break through. This truth is inherently related to the void, and occurs at event sites.
Saldanha (2007b) argues that Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD in 1943 was a Badiouan event because it resulted in a few truth procedures that transformed Western society. However, we use Badiou’s theory differently and suggest that the sociopsychopharmacological action of psychedelics can increase the possibility of events occurring.
Truth procedures materialize through the subject, who attempts to change the situation and its structure. The subject is taken up in fidelity to the event and develops an emotional attachment to its new mission.
Badiou argues that truth procedures reveal something universal, while postmodern and post-structuralist contemporaries emphasize the emphasis on plurality and multiplicity. However, Saldanha’s (2007a) description of the exclusively white trance music scene in Goa, India, is a relevant psychedelic case of this conundrum.
To aspire to broader universalism, the unity of the structure must be challenged, and the truth procedure is either concluded, or reversed, depending on the success of the structure.
AYAHUASCA AND REVELATORY EVENTS
The diffusion of ayahuasca practices across the Amazon Basin occurred during the last 300 years, and was influenced by Christian missions, the rubber boom, shamanic tourism, and the Brazilian syncretic ayahuasca churches.
Ayahuasca has been used by Siona communities for ethnic revitalization and re-indigenization of mestizo people, as well as building alliances with academics, political activists, and artists. In Western countercultures, psychedelics have also been historically related to antihegemonic revolutionary tendencies.
Two notable revelatory events occurred in the context of psychedelics: the ayahuasca-induced revelation of the Virgin Mary to Raimundo Irineu Serra and the messianic revelation of world peace by Alan Ginsberg, guided by Timothy Leary.
There are important ethical considerations related to psychedelic-induced revelations, as their content may be imposed on participants by facilitators. Nevertheless, not every psychedelic insight is a revelatory event in the Badiouan sense, as some reveal something that is ignored by the facilitators or the culture in which the experience takes place.
PALESTINIAN IDENTITY IN THE ISRAELI AYAHUASCA RITUAL STRUCTURE
Palestinians joined ayahuasca rituals in Israel around 10 years ago, but their access to the practice was mediated through Jewish Israeli circles. This was mainly due to their lower socioeconomic status and travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians were outsiders at these gatherings, as they had less subcultural capital, were alienated from Jewish religious and Israeli national elements, and were associated with national memorial days.
Although Israeli New Age culture holds an allegedly apolitical ideology, many participants welcomed Palestinians, downplaying sociopolitical hierarchies, inequalities, and power relations, and proudly celebrating the different cultural and religious background of each participant.
The Palestinian minority in Israel is denied national identity by the majority of Jewish Israelis, and has been denationalized, racialized, and fragmented into religious subminorities. Some Palestinian citizens have adopted an integrative politics of civil equality, in the hope of individual acceptance into Israeli society.
Israeli ayahuasca rituals appeal to middle-class Palestinian citizens of Israel because they promise a collective experience of “oneness” and “identity dissolution”. However, this experience does not guarantee equality or recognition, mainly because the looming political tension is kept strictly silent.
As research on the New Age culture in Israel suggests, blindness toward ethno-national identity reinforces identification with a self-evident hegemonic perception, thereby excluding peripheral groups such as indigenous populations. The use of psychedelics in dialog groups between Palestinians and Israelis has avoided dealing with the violent atrocities that Israelis have inflicted upon Palestinians. This has led to the preservation of ethnonational power relations in Palestine/Israel.
Badiou’s ritual structure keeps Palestinian identity “on the edge of the void” (2007, 176) to preserve harmony. Palestinian language, music, and religions can be included as long as they are not explicitly considered Palestinian.
Three cases are presented in which Palestinians were affected by revelatory events related to the collective trauma of the Palestinian people. These subjects attempted to intervene in the rituals’ structure by delivering an emancipatory message, in the form of a song.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Three case studies are presented that examine relations between Palestinians and Israelis in the field of ayahuasca rituals. The data was gathered through 31 in-depth interviews with Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, all between 28 and 59 years old, who participated to various extents in these mixed rituals.
In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted in Hebrew, Arabic, and English7 with three different groups of people. The author used the microphenomenological interview technique and conducted participatory observations in five rituals.
The analysis was based on the grounded theory approach, and involved several stages including a thematic analysis of the interviews, which revealed thematic categories. These categories were scrutinized again for centrality, for the connections between them, and for their relevance to the study.
In a previous paper, fifteen conflict-related revelations were identified, of which five were defined as political revelatory events based on the theoretical framework of the current paper. Three revelatory events are presented here.
REGAINING A SELF-DENIED SELF
Khalil, an Israeli Arab who grew up in the Galilee and went to a Jewish Israeli school, was denationalized and assimilated and became critical toward Palestinians. He reached ayahuasca rituals in his 50s to heal a personal trauma.
Khalil was invited to a ritual in a Jewish Israeli town, where he was asked to change into white and sang Jewish religious songs. This contrast between the Palestinian minority and Jewish majority of participants intensified his confrontation with his self-denied Arabness.
Khalil went out to the porch to sit under a vine tree and felt alone and fearful. A vision of an old Palestinian couple in traditional Arab clothing came to him and told him the story of how they were evicted from their house.
Khalil felt angry at himself for not acknowledging the injustice that Israelis perpetrate against Palestinians, and sang an Arabic song to disrupt the ritual. The shaman invited him to sit next to him and played a song by Fayrouz, which caused everybody to dance and hug.
Khalil’s fidelity to his vision was expressed through an angry musical interruption, but the shaman successfully diverted attention from the national political grounds expressed in Khalil’s anger to culturally safe grounds. Khalil considered his bringing himself to sing in Arabic at the Israeli ritual an outstanding achievement.
Khalil remained loyal to the event after the ritual was over, and began organizing rituals for Palestinians only, in which he introduced Arab musical instruments, such as the oud and qanun. These rituals offer an alternative structure in which Palestinians can reclaim their Arabic heritage.
DIVERSIFICATION AND POLITICIZATION
Ruqaiya worked at a regular nine-to-five job in finance, felt an outsider in her Palestinian culture, and was divorced with two children when she first participated in ayahuasca rituals. Ayahuasca taught her that her trauma was a gift, and she became a therapist.
Ruqaiya had her major life-changing revelation four years into her participation in Israeli ayahuasca rituals. She saw her elder daughter Amal with some darkness closing in on her, “disappearing into an abyss”, and had to reach out to Amal and pull her out of her confusion.
Ruqaiya had a vision in which she saw Palestinian and Israeli mothers sacrifice their own children to war, while Mother Earth absorbed the bloodshed.
Ruqaiya’s singing and vision were simultaneous, and she released a frequency of anger when she sang al-Fatiha. She said that it is about not getting lost, and that all those who go by certain laws separate from the human itself.
Ruqaiya’s singing was a pivotal moment in the ritual for other group members, but only few understood the message. Her anger was related to a political truth that was concealed by the structure of the ritual.
Palestinians use rituals to express political anger, but New Age spirituality supports the Israeli structure of political denial by suggesting that political revelations are part of the “shadow work” that one needs to go through.
Ruqaiya’s revelation during this ritual developed into a sense of mission and meaning in her life. She encouraged other Palestinian women to join her rituals and “find their voice”, and sought to expand and diversify the ayahuasca rituals to make them more egalitarian and inclusive for Palestinians.
Ruqaiya’s politicization did not happen at once. Over time, she met like-minded people who could understand her mission, and she has been seeking further connections to form a larger social movement.
Ruqaiya has attempted to deliver explicit political messages during rituals, including one in which a Jewish Israeli woman declared she would not move to Portugal. Ruqaiya spoke in archaic Hebrew, accusing the “children of Israel” of losing their way, and stated that “those who were liberated by Moses in the past, have now become Pharaoh [to the Palestinians]”. This is a radical break from the previous structure.
Ruqaiya’s politicized prophetic deliverance in rituals suggests that she is seeking the reformation of New Age culture so as to make it more politically engaged.
THE DIVIDED SUBJECT
Amos, a middle-class Jewish Israeli, joined the Israeli army as a soldier in an elite unit and went through traumatic events in the West Bank. After his army service, he went on a long journey to India and elsewhere to overcome the harsh memories of military service.
Palestinians who came to Israeli rituals in leather shoes, jeans, cell phone, BMW keys, pack of cigarettes were initially judgmental toward their appearance.
The ayahuasca showed me the Palestinian group as a separate unit within us, and I felt connected to their pain. I began to break, and couldn’t stand to hear them crying.
Amos had a detailed flashback of his army service, where he made a casual house arrest of Palestinians, interrogated the family, and then led a man into a military jeep. He felt intense anger and guilt when the revelation ended.
After recognizing the pain that Palestinians go through, Amos became devastated during the ritual, and began singing with much confidence. He requested permission from the facilitators to sing relatively early in the ritual, and felt like a “preacher” delivering a crucial message of truth to the group.
Amos sang a song in Hebrew that expressed his relationship with Palestinians and their mutual connection to the land. Two Palestinian participants lay down next to him during the ritual, and this started his journey of healing his relations with them.
Amos, who had lied down next to Rashid while he was singing, found the courage to sing later in the same ritual, and eventually befriended the Palestinian group. He also began to learn Arabic and developed a great interest in Palestinian culture and history.
In all three events and fidelities described in this article, the connection to the land is an important theme. This connection requires resistance to the Israeli settler-colonial project.
Although initially in full fidelity to the event, Amos later became divided between his fidelity to the event and his belonging to the structure. This was exemplified by his later reinterpretation of the song “Mekomi kadosh” based on the previous structure. We argue that the new interpretation of Amos’s song is a diversion from the truth attained during the event, and does not challenge the structure.
Amos said that he overcame stigmatization and fears of Palestinians through friendship with them, but he maintained an apolitical position that was centered on harmony and friendship, without actively taking responsibility for and acting against the structure of injustice against Palestinians.
Amos’s fidelity to his event was reversed because the Israeli structure was stronger than the event for him, and his fidelity as a Jewish Israeli was ignited by guilt.
In this article we argue that Badiou’s theory is relevant to understanding the sociopsychopharmacology of psychedelics and their political implications.
The fidelity to an event’s truth compels the receiving subject to oppose and possibly change both the ritual’s structure and the larger sociopolitical structure, by changing the existing rituals or establishing alternative rituals, albeit more inclusive and universal.
The contrast between the harmonious unity of the Israeli structure and the injustice that Israelis have caused Palestinians amplifies the rupture between the structure and the excluded “void” and eventually makes the rupture possible.
The revelatory rupture with the exclusive structure of psychedelic practices leads to revolutionary motions that diversify the psychedelic practice. Leary’s charismatic fidelity was not just to the 1943 LSD-event, but also to Ginsberg’s event and intervention that liberated psychedelic practices from institutional exclusivism and Huxley’s elitism.
Truth events are crucial for the emergence of counterhegemonic egalitarian sentiments in psychedelic practices, but agents of the structure constantly attempt to reverse the fidelity to the event’s truth and place it back into its original framework.
The dynamics between structure and event can subvert the enthusiasm of the rupture in service of the structure itself. Pseudofidelity can be recognized by its revolutionary tendencies, but a lack of universal aspirations.
Badiou’s event relates to love, science, and art, and may offer new insights into psychedelic experiences. To analyze such events, it is important to examine the structure in which they occur and the fidelity that ensues.
The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by the Imperial College Research Ethics Committee. The patients provided written informed consent to participate.
The authors thank Antwan Saca, Natalie Ginsberg, Robin Carhart-Harris, Rick Doblin, Chris Timmermann, Deborah Schwartz, and Moshe Tov Kreps for their support.
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Authors associated with this publication with profiles on BlossomRobin Carhart-Harris
Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris is the Founding Director of the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at UCSF. Previously he led the Psychedelic group at Imperial College London.
Leor Roseman is a researcher at the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London. His work focussed on psilocybin for depression, but is now related to peace-building through psychedelics.
Rick Doblin Ph.D. is the founder of MAPS. His persistent work since 1986 has been one of the main drivers behind why psychedelics (including MDMA) are now coming back to therapy.
Institutes associated with this publicationImperial College London
The Centre for Psychedelic Research studies the action (in the brain) and clinical use of psychedelics, with a focus on depression.